Before they were even assured a spot in Saturday's Kentucky Derby field, trainers of the top 21 Derby hopefuls were invited to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' annual Derby trainers dinner Tuesday evening at the Kentucky International Convention Center.
Giving hosts Chris Lincoln and Paul Rogers a chance to needle the conditioners is always worth watching, but this year the event also included a special presentation in honor of Woody Stephens.
The trainer's trophy Stephens earned when Swale won the Kentucky Derby in 1984 didn't surface until this spring, after Stephens wondered for years if it was lost in the mail or stolen. Turned out it was tucked away in a Churchill Downs storeroom. On Tuesday it was officially presented to his widow, Lucille Stephens, who returned it to the Kentucky Derby Museum so others could enjoy the piece.
Seth Hancock, whose family bred and owned Swale, took the stage on behalf of Mrs. Stephens and read a statement from her that said, in part: "To me this trophy is much more than an attractive piece of racing memorabilia. It represents years of hard work. It was a milestone, and it represents a happy ending." Mrs. Stephens was presented with a huge bouquet of roses at the end of the evening.
On a much lighter note, per usual, Lincoln got the opportunity to chastise D. Wayne Lukas, in his absence, about his habit of skipping the event. This year he got to do the same to Bob Baffert, who sent assistant John Goode instead.
"I've never known Bob Baffert to shy away from a camera," said Lincoln. "He chases reporters."
Although nearly a third of the trainers were no-shows, others were happy to comply. Even Kenny McPeek, who broke an ankle playing basketball earlier in the week, hobbled on stage, crutches and all. "I was on a fast break," McPeek explained to Lincoln. "But you wouldn't know anything about that." Even though he has Harlan's Holiday in his barn, McPeek continued to appear relaxed about saddling the possible Derby favorite.
Some of the better comments from the night:
-Lincoln teased H. James Bond (Buddha) about not knowing much about Churchill Downs. Mott said, "I don't, but my jockey (Pat Day) does."
-Lincoln on Aidan O'Brien, who was still in Ireland with the flu. "The looks like Clark Kent, with the glasses and the top hat, but this guy is Superman."
-After Jeff Mullins compared his horse to Forrest Gump (always running), he answered a question about the horse's recent removal of a testicle and if that made an improvement in his performance. "I don't know if removing the testicle made the difference, or threatening to remove the other one (did it)."
Although the trainers were the main focus, they shared the spotlight with special guests Donna and John T. Ward Jr., who together trained Monarchos to win last year's Run for the Roses and accepted the trainer's trophy, and Kentucky Governor Paul Patton, who accepted the Keene Daingerfield Award from the KTOB for his efforts on behalf of the horse industry.